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Mr. Loughton: Will the Minister address the point raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) about the legislative process? Will he tell us whether the Government would grant time before five years were up to push through legislation, if the existing status were enhanced instead of the national park alternative being chosen?

Mr. Meale: We shall give due consideration to the whole process and to the results of the consultations that have been carried out. As I said, we want to take a decision and make an announcement, but we have to get it right.

The Countryside Commission has recommended that the south downs should be the first area to benefit from a statutory AONB conservation board. It believes that that would build upon the success already achieved by the Sussex Downs conservation board, which was set up jointly by the local authorities on the Sussex downs and the Countryside Commission in 1992. Ministers have praised the performance of the Sussex Downs conservation board since it was set up and I echo that praise today. The establishment of the conservation board was purely a voluntary move toward working together by

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local authorities, assisted by the Countryside Commission. They deserve praise for the effort and the funding that have gone and continue to go into it.

However, what is being sought now is quite different--a permanent body with a statutory framework and guaranteed funding. We are still looking in detail at the commission's recommendations on statutory conservation boards, as primary legislation would be needed to provide for them. The Commission recommended that they should be funded as a partnership, with 50:50 local and national funding. Ministers have since had a considerable postbag from local authorities managing AONBs, suggesting that the AONBs should be funded like national parks.

The Government want to do significantly more for AONBs, but we have to determine how far and how fast we can go, and what the most effective mechanisms are. As a start, we have already provided an extra £2.5 million for the new countryside agency to spend in AONBs next year. That will more than double the budget that the Countryside Commission has so far had for AONBs.

For the purposes of today's debate, the key question is whether the south downs should have the first of a new series of statutory conservation boards, rather than become a national park. As I have said, we are not ready to announce any decision yet. If we bring forward proposals for primary legislation to provide for AONB conservation boards, we shall have to take into account how the opportunity of primary legislation can best be used to provide for the future needs of the protected areas generally, including providing the best solution for both the south downs and the New forest. There are many questions involved, including the interplay with the planning system, local democracy and the regional agenda; the precise powers and responsibilities of the authorities concerned; and the membership and funding arrangements.

I understand the urgency felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House about providing a long-term solution for the management of the south downs. The Sussex Downs conservation board currently has funding until March 2001, but we have said that we want to settle on a long-term solution well before the current funding arrangements expire. I assure the House that we will provide that solution as soon as we can.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kemptown, and hon. Members on both sides of the House and of differing points of view, for giving us the opportunity to consider these points today. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend, along with other hon. Members present today--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order.

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CJD and Human Growth Hormone

1.30 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I am grateful for the opportunity to highlight the plight of five families who have lost a family member from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease as a result of human growth hormone treatment. Their position has been made worse by the fact that to date they have not been entitled to any compensation because a judicial ruling in 1996 stated that damages could be paid only to victims who started the treatment, or had the majority of it, after July 1977.

The issue concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House, particularly those who have witnessed the trauma experienced by the families involved. My constituents, Mavis and Tony Lay, lost their 22-year-old daughter Alison to that terrible disease in 1985. Alison was a clever, bubbly girl who was adored by many people. She was the first person in Britain to die from CJD. Her parents' anguish has been made worse by their continuing fight for compensation from the Department of Health.

Let me set out the necessary background details to the case. Between 1959 and 1985, nearly 2,000 children were given human growth hormone derived from donated glands. The Medical Research Council ran the programme as a clinical trial until 1977, when the Department of Health assumed full control.

Although the programme proved successful and was in great demand, not just in Britain but throughout the world, a number of concerns among leading scientists raised the likelihood of a link with CJD. During clinical trials, Dr. Alan Dickinson of the Agricultural Research Council, a veterinary scientist who was working on scrapie, alerted officials at the Medical Research Council to the risk of CJD being transmitted through human growth hormone. He consequently made four suggestions on how to improve the safety of the hormone. Two were never acted on, the third was only partially implemented and the fourth was not put into force until 1980--three years after the Department of Health started running the treatment. The Medical Research Council appointed two virologists as consultants, but that was not until the medical trials had been completed.

The programme also failed to fall within the regulatory framework of the Therapeutic Substances Act 1956 or the Medicines Act 1968, so the hormone escaped any regulation in terms of its safety or purity. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that one senior Government scientist recorded that the laboratories where the hormone was prepared were "wholly inadequate and inappropriate". They were consequently shut down just one year into the Department of Health programme, after failing inspection. The full growth hormone programme ended in 1985 following the death of my former constituent, Alison Lay, from CJD, and similar deaths in the United States.

When the families concerned took their case to trial, the High Court ruled in July 1996 that the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health were negligent in not acting on the scientists' concerns, which probably would have resulted in the suspension of the treatment from July 1977. The judge, Mr. Justice Morland, stated that, if consultants had been properly alerted, new patients would not have been started on the programme. However, he went on to say that those who were already receiving treatment would legitimately have been continued on the

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programme. The ruling meant that only families of patients who started treatment after July 1977 would be entitled to compensation. As a result, several families were not entitled to compensation and were devastated.

My constituent, Alison Lay, began her treatment in 1972 and her family have had to endure prolonged distress as a consequence of the ruling. Their trauma has been worsened by the refusal of Mr. Justice Morland to go beyond his original ruling.

This afternoon, I would like to put to the Minister a number of compelling reasons for reviewing the matter and compensating the five families.

The fundamental argument is simple. It points to a lack of consistency in the CJD litigation and the unfairness of the matter. It cannot be right that some people who died of CJD from contaminated growth hormone have been treated differently from the rest of the group. Although I understand and do not dispute Mr. Justice Morland's decision to institute a cut-off date, the fact that five families remain unentitled to compensation seems to be unjust and unfair.

It is also clear that, because only five cases are outstanding, there will not be any further claims of this precise nature and that, by changing their stance, the Government would not be opening the floodgates to many appeals.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): The hon. Gentleman is referring to human growth hormone, yet he is talking about CJD being linked to cattle and sheep. Is he talking about CJD in general or about people who had been given human growth hormone which is extracted from human pineal glands?

Mr. Oaten: I apologise if I have not made it clear that I am referring to CJD caused by the use of human growth hormones in treating other humans.

In view of the limited number of outstanding cases, the Government should be persuaded on compassionate grounds that some form of compensation should be awarded at limited cost to the Department of Health.

There is an additional issue that makes a compelling case for compensation to the five families. In June this year, six individuals won compensation of between £3,500 and £300,000 due to having suffered from psychiatric illness because of "rational fears" of contracting CJD. One wonders why the principle of extended compassion cannot be stretched just a little further to encompass the five cases that I have outlined.

Let me remind the Government of their stance on the issue in opposition, when they pressed strongly for compensation for CJD victims. For example, the then shadow Health Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, stated:

There is certainly no doubt about the Government's recent commitment to try to settle many outstanding compensation issues.

Perhaps the Government should follow the examples of Australia and France, where all CJD claimants have been compensated without having to establish liability. Is there not a similarity between the case of the haemophiliac

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victims who became infected with HIV through contaminated factor 8 blood products? In that case, the Department established a no-fault compensation scheme. Is that not a practical example of how the remaining five CJD cases should be handled?

It may be that the Minister will take the same view as the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), who stated last year in an oral reply that no further compensation should be given over and above Mr. Justice Morland's ruling because

Although I do not dispute the main responsibility of the Department of Health, there is a moral case for compensating the five families. I ask the Minister to remember the human suffering and injustice that have taken place and to try to resolve the issue speedily by compensating the five families. The numbers are small, and the cost to the Department of Health is not significant. Is it not time to end their distress? As my constituent, Mavis Lay, stated:

    "we have had enough torment over the last 14 years."

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